Sunday, March 12, 2006

Self-Medication is Self-Determination!

Theodore Dalrymple, the prison doctor and brilliant conservative essayist has a new book out, which everyone should buy and read. There is an essay in it with the self-explanatory title "Don't Legalize Drugs," which you can find here.

I've learned a lot from the Doctor from Hell (as I fondly think of him) and this essay is no exception. In this case, though, what I learned is mostly (but not by any means entirely) of the "Know your foe" variety: gaining insight into how your opponent thinks. He makes as good a case as one can in such brief compass, and (unlike almost all of us academics) speaks from extensive experience with the dark underside (mutilated, botched, failed, or malevolent) of human life, so I take his arguments very seriously.

Here are of few comments on why I, nonetheless, think he is wrong.

Here is how Dr. Dalrymple puts the major premise of the argument from the anti-prohibition camp:

The philosophic argument is that, in a free society, adults should be permitted to do whatever they please, always provided that they are prepared to take the consequences of their own choices and that they cause no direct harm to others. The locus classicus for this point of view is John Stuart Mill's famous essay On Liberty: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of the community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others," Mill wrote. "His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant."

My own view is that, roughly, this is indeed the principal "philosophical" reason that tells against drug prohibition, though I would prefer to speak of rights violations rather than use the Millian notion of "harm."

His main response to this idea is this:

Human affairs cannot be decided by an appeal to an infallible rule, expressible in a few words, whose simple application can decide all cases, including whether drugs should be freely available to the entire adult population.

The idea is that we can decide to permit alchohol consumption and prohibit cocaine consumption, making these decisions on a case-by case basis, on the grounds of -- what?

That of course is the question. It's all very well to say that you don't believe in exceptionless principles -- of course, all rules have exceptions of some sort -- but that doesn't take you off the hook from the responsibility to justify yourself, nor from principled thinking. Why should we make this particular exception? Whatever answer you give, that becomes a new principle, which you have to apply consistently, unless you can come up with another exception ... which becomes a principle ... and so forth.

Well, the good doctor does give a reason why drugs should represent an exception to the general rule that you should be left alone as long as you are not violating anyone else's rights. Like a philosopher, he makes a distinction. There are, he says, important freedoms and trivial ones. The freedom to criticize ideas is important. The freedom to take LSD is trivial. Furthermore, drugs themselves restrict your freedom by shrinking the set of alternatives open to you. So drug prohibition takes away a lesser freedom and gives you a greater one.

Believe it or not, I am convinced that both these ideas, despite their plausibility, are profoundly wrong. The freedom to take drugs is not a trivial one. And they do not per se restrict your freedom -- which would of course imply that, if I am right, drug prohibition does not enhance your freedom. It does just what it seems to do: it takes a certain decision-making power away from you and transfers it to the state.

Most of the standard theories of happiness or human well-being agree that happiness includes having some power to control one's world, and most also agree that it has something to do with how you feel, with mood. Well, drugs give you some power over your mood, so they are clearly relevant to well-being or happiness. Right now, I am orally ingesting a drug -- a hot cup of instant coffee I heated in the microwave. The reason is that I just got out of bed and my current mood (groggy) doesn't suit me. It's interfering with what I want to do (write this blog). So I am trying to adjust it with this caffeine. Like any drug, it doesn't do the whole trick, but it does help.

Dr. Dalrymple would of course find this argument silly. Caffeine helps people to (sometimes) function better. It is a legal drug. He would claim that illegal drugs make people function worse, or prevent them from functioning at all. They cause people to sit in a stupor. I would only point out that this claim is at best a wild over-generalization. Many illicit drugs have effects similar to caffeine: they are "stimulants," and people take them to be more alert, not to stupefy themselves. Even the illegal drugs that are "depressants" might have legitimate uses in mood-control.

Obviously, there are many complicated issues involved here. But right now my point is a relatively simple one: Drugs are a technology, and technology means power over your world. Any state that takes a tecnology away from you is taking power out of your hands and giving it to someone else. That is not a trivial matter at all. Further, such a seizure does not (simply) enhance your freedom. To some extent, it takes freedom away.

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